In Tuesday night’s Las Vegas GOP debate, the topic of a candidate’s religious views surfaced in a race dominated overwhelmingly by concerns about jobs and economic growth.
Texas Governor Rick Perry side-stepped criticisms of supporter Rev. Robert Jeffress, who, after introducing Perry at the Values Voters Summit, characterized former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney’s Mormon faith as belonging to a “cult.”
Romney, to his credit, defended the constitutional protection of the nation’s plurality of faiths and criticized the act of voting on the basis of religious affiliation. Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich explicitly qualified religion as necessary for leadership, saying “How can I trust you with power if you don't pray?” Gingrich’s view might represent the past few decades of Republican thought, but it is an intellectually bankrupt position that prevents the GOP from broadening its base.
Republican politicians routinely conflate faith with virtue as they attempt to woo politically active evangelical voters. These “values voters” believe religion can be used a proxy for moral worth because they define ethics solely in terms of their creed. However, learned men since Socrates have known that morality must exist independently of the preferences of a deity. A candidate’s moral values, of course, are of central interest to voters, but these values must be grounded in something more than faith. Candidates need not check their religious beliefs at the door, but they should uphold their values with an authority that all people can recognize.
In Western civilization, there exists a tradition of justifying religious beliefs on secular grounds. This began in the medieval period as an attempt to demonstrate conclusively that the Christian faith was absolutely true, but the approach has value apart from that experiment. Couching one’s faith in secular discourse allows communication between faiths by providing a common ground that threatens no one’s religious identity. America is a multicultural and democratic society; the need to relate across religious divides is vital to the survival of the republic. If today’s problems are going to be solved, it is important that we talk to each other, not past each other, and communication will only be stifled when the terms of the debate are framed by one man’s understanding of God, which may be indiscernible to others.
More than any other political figure, the president must represent the whole fabric of American culture, not merely the majority or some pet faction. Primary politics is an inelegant dance for the favor of a partisan base, but the Republican hopefuls for the presidency must never forget that when the president speaks to the American people, he speaks to them all.
Leadership is not piety — it is bringing people together for a common purpose. If a candidate’s creed inspires the qualities that make great leaders, then it is all the more reason for voters to look beyond religion when making their decision. The next president should not invite discord by pandering to zealotry, but should offer a new path with a broad consensus. If a Republican wants to be president, he must emphatically reject Gingrich’s philosophy in favor of Romney’s more tolerant view.
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